Ep. 05: A CIA Operative’s Tale

Season 01

Episode 01


Robert Grenier


Federica Manzitti






Federica Manzitti (author)
Cristiano Cervoni (sound design)
Georgia Walker (narrator)
Bertrand Chaumeton (music)

Robert Grenier

In this episode of Segreta, Robert Grenier, a former CIA operative, takes us back to the 1980s when he was on a mission against a rogue regime. He reveals the challenges of investigating secretive businesses and individuals connected to the regime. Grenier’s recollections showcase the importance of imagination and unconventional methods in espionage. He recounts break-ins into suspect businesses in the pre-computer era and highlights the risks involved. This episode offers insights into the world of espionage, emphasizing the critical skills of persistence and imagination required for investigators while honouring their dedication to uncovering secrets.

At that time I was doing work against a rogue regime involved in support terrorist groups in various parts of the globe and trying to develop what we would now call weapons of mass destruction – Our speculation at the time was that they were using ostensibly legitimate businesses and wealthy individuals who had some connection with the regime – There are a number of skills and attributes that are particularly important for investigators. I think that imagination is one.


Suspended in the hazy netherworld between asleep and wakefulness. I gradually became aware of an irritating sound somewhere near my head. It took a few seconds to orient myself. I was in my bedroom, safe behind bolted steel doors. The sound was coming from the secure phone on the nightstand. The clock indicated it’s gone to bed just four hours before. “What in God’s name do they want now?” I thought. I raised the receiver and managed a raspy “Hello”

“Did I wake you up, son?”

 It was the unmistakable voice of George Tenet. I wasn’t much in the habit of being awakened by the director, but what caught my attention was being called son. George wasn’t all that much older than me. “No Mr Director” I lied. “I was just getting up” “Listen, Bob “he began after our encrypted phones had synced up. “We’re meeting tomorrow morning at Camp David to discuss our war strategy for Afghanistan”.

Those are the opening lines of the autobiographical 88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary, Robert Grenier’s chronicle when he was the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad during the first American-Afghan war. Robert Grenier is not only a previous member of the clandestine service of the Central Intelligence Agency in that fateful episode in modern history, he played a key part in many other secret operations. Today he is the protagonist in this special episode of Segreta.

Robert Grenier

My name is Robert Grenier and for 27 years I was a member of the clandestine service of the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA. And in my career, I was engaged primarily in overseas operations in the Middle East and South Asia. I guess the clandestine activities actually at the time, they weren’t so terribly clandestine, I guess, for which I am best known now, date from the late 1980s and the period right around 2001 and 911. And at that time, I was the CIA station chief in Pakistan and had responsibility as well for Afghanistan. So, I was very heavily involved in U.S. efforts to penetrate and to determine what was happening in Afghanistan at the time that Osama bin Laden was there I was actively engaged in negotiations with the Taliban after 9/11.


Later, Robert Grenier was engaged in support of the US invasion of Iraq. He retired in 2006, ending his career as the director of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center. He is now engaged in the media and in business as a consultant, but the story he tells to Segreta will take us back in time to the 1980s.

Robert Grenier

And at that time, I was an overseas operative for the CIA. And I was doing work against what we would now call a rogue regime involved in support of militant and terrorist groups in various parts of the globe and was also trying to develop what we would now call weapons of mass destruction. And so there was a great deal that the CIA wanted to know about what this particular regime was doing, and it was very difficult for us to acquire that information. And even though it was the 1980s, it was already becoming more difficult for different entities, both criminals and spies, for that matter, to operate entirely in cash. And so, to a greater and greater extent, they that is, both criminals and spies were having to make use of the banking system and to try to leverage legitimate businesses in order to engage in activities that they wanted to keep hidden from public sight. This particular regime, it was clear that although they were providing funding to companies that were engaged in providing them with the capability to build the chemical weapons or nuclear weapons and were also trying to move money to extremist and terrorist groups, they weren’t able to do that by moving sovereign funds. And so, our speculation at the time was that they were using ostensibly legitimate businesses and wealthy individuals who had some connection with the regime.


The major question was, then: which wealthy individuals and which businesses should be pursued as suspects?

Robert Grenier

in order to do that we launched usually through third parties investigations of these different companies and these different wealthy individuals to try to establish a profile for each of them, which would give us an indication as to which of those were actually engaged in legitimate business and which of them were perhaps engaged in activities that really could not be easily traced, where there was ostensible business activity that really didn’t have anything to back it up.  And so what we did was to launch what we would now called due diligence investigations in the same way that investors might launch such investigations in order to establish the bona fides of a company with which they were invited to do business or in which they were interested in potentially making an investment and or checking on the figures of potential customers. And in doing that, at that time, in the 1980s, of course, we didn’t have the tools that are readily available now. We didn’t have the Internet. We weren’t able to access the types and the amounts of data that are readily available now. And it was those businesses which we really weren’t able to establish a clear profile of legitimate commerce that we then focused on. And what we were doing essentially was to launch break ins of these companies. Once we had a company that we thought was suspect. We want to know what they were really doing. And of course, we didn’t have public records that we could access. the banking regulations at the time were far more permissive, far looser. And so frequently what we were doing was we were breaking into their offices in various places around the world so that we could get access to the records and try to determine what their activities actually were.


Those were the 80s when the world we live in today was still only glint in someone’s eyes.

Robert Grenier

For instance, hotels were just beginning to be computerized at that time. And I remember how shocked I was actually when I went to check into a hotel, stepped up to the counter and engaged the clerk and handed over my passport. And just a couple of moments later, the clerk was able to tear off a printout from a computer printer and hand it to me and said, welcome back. So, it meant that in a matter of seconds he was able to access computer records to determine that I had been at that hotel at one point in the recent past. And that doesn’t sound very exciting or exceptional right now. But at the time it was because prior to computerization, a hotel in order to determine that I had been there before, would have had to go back and look through paper records So when I saw that know, it’s like so many experiences that we have where suddenly it dawns on you that, Oh my God, this could really open up all kinds of new possibilities. And without even contemplating an Internet at that time, it occurred to me that, well, wait a minute, if somehow these computers could be linked, if you could bring together in one place, not just the records from this one hotel, but immigration records, records, you know from customs, all sorts of other law enforcement records that somehow you could really, in very rapid order, gain a 360 degree impression or profile of an individual that would have taken many weeks or perhaps months of research and for a spy, it wasn’t good news. So, I think that the fact that as late as the 1970s you could do business that was entirely in cash still made it far easier for both criminals, drug dealers and spies to operate in the dark. And so, in a sense, I give thanks that I was doing this sort of work back at the time that I was when it was far easier than it is now.


But investigations at that level were already a dangerous field as Robert Grenier knew from experience.

Robert Grenier

Surely some of the people against whom we were working were quite dangerous. And in fact, it was around that time that an individual with whom I was working, who is an opponent of this particular rogue regime, was on my behalf recruiting people inside that country who could provide information. And one of the people with whom he was dealing was, in fact, a double agent and was reporting to the government. And that person led my friend, my associate, into a trap, and he was murdered. And I loved what I was doing at the time, but that was a very stark reminder that the people against whom we were operating were not doing this as a game. They were playing for keeps, and that for them it was a life and death situation.


To end this special episode of Segreta we asked Robert Grenier to tell us the greatest skills of an investigator.

Robert Grenier

Well, I think there are a number of skills and attributes that are particularly important for investigators. I think that imagination is one in order to acquire information, particularly information that others want to keep secret, it’s very important that one be highly imaginative and B, be willing to try different methods that perhaps haven’t been tried before and to be to have a high appetite, therefore, for failure to be willing to risk failure. Beyond that, I think it’s very important that one be relentless, as gathering information, particularly secret information is often not easy. And it’s the people who are willing to persist and to overcome adversity and to shake off failure and just continue on with that. Those are the people who I think are most likely of success in the long run.


After the event retold in 88 Days to Kandahar, and after the Taliban’s collapse, Grenier took charge of the CIA’s activities during the Iraq war and later headed the agency’s Counterterrorism Center before going into private business.

In 2015, the Senate Intelligence Committee published a scathing report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) use of torture during its post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” program. The report exposed practices to extract information from suspected terrorists, which included waterboarding, stress positions, and prolonged sleep deprivation. Somehow Grenier has lifted the lid on the shambles of US policy in and around the Afghan wars. He is one those people who are willing to overcome setbacks, to shake off failure, and to continue investigations in order to reveal the darkest secrets.

A special thanks to Robert Granier who gave us the benefit of his long experience.

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